See No Evil

Denise Wolff was gunned down in front of her home in a quiet South St. Louis neighborhood. Police thought they had the killer until their star witness wrecked the case.

In a quiet South St. Louis neighborhood near Lindenwood Park, Denise Wolff rounded a corner and headed toward her tidy two-bedroom home on Bancroft Avenue. She was behind the wheel of her brand-new, loaded Chrysler Cirrus LX -- fresh off the dealer's lot just days earlier.

As a card dealer at the President Casino on the Admiral, Denise usually worked the overnight shift from 8 p.m.-4 a.m., and on this warm summer morning, July 17, 1997, she'd clocked out at 4:09 a.m. She'd been in an unusually good mood. She chatted with a co-worker who drove her to the lot where she had parked under the Poplar Street Bridge, plucked off her car a note written by a man she'd been having an affair with and, still a bit giddy over the relationship, told her friend she had a "pocketful of them." Denise then drove off. She stopped briefly at the drive-through of a Hardee's on Hampton Avenue to pick up a breakfast sandwich. It was still dark outside, and as Denise neared her home, only the mercury-vapor street lights cast a faint glow on her surroundings.

The 39-year-old mother of two was terrified of the South Side Rapist -- a notorious serial rapist who wasn't caught until late 1998 -- so much so that she had had a motion-activated floodlight installed near her driveway. When she came home before dawn or after dusk, she would almost always pull her car straight into the garage. This Thursday morning, Denise did not. Instead, she got out of her car, walked down the driveway and -- perhaps toward someone or something -- across the sidewalk in her frontyard. She made it past only a few squares of concrete before a sudden burst of gunfire brought her crashing to the ground. The bullets pierced the garage door, the trim, the frame of a front window. They ripped through Denise's legs and torso.

Denise Wolff was murdered outside her home on Bancroft (right) in July 1997. Her husband, Larry, lived a short distance away, in a house on Jamieson (left).
Denise Wolff was murdered outside her home on Bancroft (right) in July 1997. Her husband, Larry, lived a short distance away, in a house on Jamieson (left).
Denise Wolff was murdered outside her home on Bancroft in July 1997. Her husband, Larry, lived a short distance away, in a house on Jamieson (above).
Jennifer Silverberg
Denise Wolff was murdered outside her home on Bancroft in July 1997. Her husband, Larry, lived a short distance away, in a house on Jamieson (above).

The noise roused slumbering neighbors up and down Bancroft and on nearby Wenzlick and Prather avenues, many of whom peered out their windows and called 911. They reported the sound of gunshots, and most of them also described seeing a gray or silver conversion van driving away from the scene with its headlights off, heading east on Bancroft, then north on Wenzlick.

Denise lay crumpled on the sidewalk, her body riddled with bullet wounds. Her pink Bic lighter and a pack of Salems were scattered around her, along with her keyring and a brown paper bag containing her uneaten Hardee's breakfast. Clutched in her fingers were the handwritten notes from her lover, a married man who also worked at the casino.

The first person to reach her was a neighbor, an off-duty police officer who awoke at 4:37 a.m. to the sound of gunfire -- two controlled shots, then a rapid succession of 10 to 15 more. He found Denise lying facedown on the sidewalk, bleeding from numerous wounds. There wasn't much he could do.

A police officer dispatched to the scene was told Denise's husband lived about 100 yards away in a house at the corner of Bancroft and Jamieson avenues. He knocked at the door, and Larry Wolff, a city plumbing inspector who'd been legally separated from Denise for seven years, quickly answered, wearing a pair of boxer shorts. He told the officer he hadn't heard a thing.

Paramedics arrived within minutes, and as they struggled to stabilize Denise's condition, her husband stood in front of the ambulance. The police officers noted that his gaze seemed focused away from his wife, bleeding on the ground. Denise was transported, alone, to Barnes-Jewish Hospital. A doctor pronounced her dead at 5:41 a.m. The bullets had lacerated her kidney, colon, spleen, bowel and bladder, fractured several bones and caused massive bleeding.

It was a sudden and violent death for a woman who had led a rather unassuming life. Even in those early hours of the investigation, however, all of the signs suggested Denise was targeted for death, not the victim of some chance shooting. "This was a purposeful, vicious crime," St. Louis Police Capt. Dave Heath would later say, addressing the television cameras. "We are not looking at this to be a random act under any circumstances." Outside Denise's home on Bancroft, police officers and crime-scene technicians strung up yellow crime-scene tape and placed a brown paper silhouette of her body on her sidewalk. This was a homicide investigation, and the questions on their minds were obvious: Who killed Denise Wolff? And why?

By all accounts, Denise was a devoted mother to her two girls, who were born 13 years apart in separate marriages. Jennie, who lived with Denise, was 10; Angie Erickson was married, with a 3-year-old son, and her belly was bulging with another child. Denise's second grandchild was due at the end of September, and she couldn't wait.

As a single mom who'd been legally separated from her husband for years, Denise had gone to dealer's school because it seemed like a fun way to make a decent living without investing huge amounts of time or money in training and education. She'd made her family and friends play cards every night when she was enrolled in dealer school, shuffling and shuffling until she got it just right. She was a night owl, so the first chance she got, she asked for the overnight shift. It also gave her more time to spend with Jennie. Denise stood about 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed about 140 pounds. Of Lebanese descent, she had dark eyes and hair that she dyed a shade of red. She spent her nights working at the President Casino, earning more than $40,000 a year dealing cards at blackjack tables and spinning the roulette wheel. She loved the lights, the sounds, the slot machines, the people, the excitement of it all. "It's like going to a party every night," she'd say. Denise had worked on the Admiral about three years after first breaking into the business at the Casino Queen.

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